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A Deeper Look at Fasting

I’m an English teacher in a small village in Afghanistan. A couple months back, the hottest topic was, of course, Ramadan (or Ramazan, as it is said here). I was asked over and over if I was going to fast for Ramadan. And when I answered, “No, I’m not Muslim,” I’d be bombarded with reasons I’m wrong or should fast. Besides the awkward feelings of inadequacy and being cast out from society, I’ve been asking myself if maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to fast during this time. This conversation also kept coming up because there are several things we have to worry about when everyone in the country you live in doesn’t eat from sun-up to sun-down.

First of all, it’s just really inconvenient when you do try to eat. Since it’s not only rude to them, but also heretical and unholy to eat in front of someone fasting, it’s a juggling act to make sure you don’t insult someone. For instance, my husband and I only ate in our house during Ramadan. And even then we tried to hide from our cleaning lady and guard while we ate. Also, walking across this dusty town in the heat and not drinking water was understandably frustrating (yes, for Muslims, fasting includes water!). I usually chugged water before I left and then re-chugged right when I got back.

But our main concern about fasting was whether or not we should be doing it as an example to our Muslim friends. Fasting here is considered a mark of righteousness and holiness. All of us feel that if we are going to be accepted and a part of society, then we on some level need to be considered righteous and holy.  So we’ve been asking ourselves, is it necessary to join in with this fast? If we joined in this fast, how do we communicate the differences in the way we would be fasting?

In order to decide if it’s necessary for us to fast, we’ve been trying to outline for ourselves the differences between why we fast and why Muslims fast. From what we understand about Islam, Muslims fast as a means to make themselves acceptable to God. They are following a set of standards and rules that Muhammad outlined in order for them to be considered holy and not condemned. But for Christians, we not only know we are holy and acceptable because of the sacrifice that Jesus made for us on the cross, but we celebrate that fact daily! So when we do fast, it is for entirely different reasons.

Christians fast not as a means of being accepted to God, but as with all spiritual disciplines, as a means of knowing and communing with God. Jesus didn’t feel the need to command us in the New Testament to fast, because He assumed we would be fasting already. In other words, He assumed we would want to. The Bible clearly outlines that fasting is one of God’s methods to remind us of those facing poverty and injustice in the world and for us to loosen those chains (Isaiah 58). There are also several examples of fasting during mourning in the Bible, so we can conclude that fasting is a method used to focus on the spiritual and metaphysical instead of the physical hardships of life. When we fast, we teach our body, and ourselves, that our immediate needs are not as important as what God wants in our lives and the world.

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So what do these differences lead me to conclude? First and foremost, I can conclude that we are free from the pressure of those around us to fast. Fasting is part of our relationship with God, not a standard of holiness we need to achieve to be accepted by Him, much less our neighbors. And second, maybe we don’t fast enough. I’ve been encouraged to go deeper in my relationship with the Lord by seeing the sacrifices in the lives of people around me and their desperation to be accepted by their God (or their community). But we already have acceptance, and yet, I take that for granted much more than I should.

1 Corinthians 8:8-9 Food does not bring us near to God. We are no worse if we do not eat and no better if we do. Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak.

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